As I commented on Modernity’s post ‘Words Matter’, words always matter. In the execrable Evening Standard last week, I read a piece about a delinquent family living on housing benefit in a beautiful house. The ethnic or religious group of the family was completely irrelevant and incidental but the Standard dropped it in anyway – as Jennifer Lipman in Mod’s post puts it, to be notched up by haters of this particular group as another good reason for hating them.
And then I remembered how, on the occasion of David Cameron’s disasterously-timed damning speech on multiculturalism, columnist Sam Leith managed to dose the confused wits of Evening Standard readers with smelling salts with his, ‘You can’t force Britishness on everyone, Dave‘. Here is is.
“Classical rhetoric gives us the concept of kairos, or “timeliness”. The PM could have done with some of that, having just given a talk on how multiculturalism fosters militant Islam within hours of English Defence League thugs stomping through Luton shouting “Who the f*** is Allah?”
Timing does matter in the race relations game. An unimpeachably theoretical discussion, depending on context, can be incendiary. Defenders of Enoch Powell rightly point out that he didn’t say “One, two, three, four, I declare a race war!” He said (to paraphrase): “I’m worried it will all kick off if we carry on like this.” But the two aren’t as easily separable as all that. Think of the man in the pub who tells you: “Look, this is a rough old boozer and your face don’t fit. Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t lay a finger on you. But I can’t vouch for my mates over there…”
Mr Cameron, mind you, speaks in good faith. And he articulates a widely held anxiety: that the passage from separate to separatist, separatist to extremist, extremist to terrorist, is an established one; and that the “hands-off tolerance” of bien-pensants eases that passage.
Personally, I’m quite in favour of “hands-off tolerance”. In fact, I’d say “hands-off” is pretty much the definition of tolerance. “Hands-on tolerance,” or perhaps “clear-off tolerance”, is the sort of tolerance the EDL wishes to extend to Muslim Britons.
When the PM says we shouldn’t fund jihadi youth clubs, or treat Islamic fascists as spokesmen for their co-religionists, we’re as one. But where he says we need an “active, muscular liberalism” that “believes in certain values and actively promotes them”, we part ways. Insisting that people hold certain values is not the job of even someone as important as the Prime Minister. It’s an impertinence to imagine it’s in his gift, and dangerous folly to seek to achieve it by state fiat. “Britishness” is the sum of everything British people think, say and do: not a handful of ideas politicians decide are good for us and administer like a dose of cod-liver oil.
Closed ethnic communities may not be to your taste but unless you can imagine a policy remedy that isn’t insane – racial housing quotas or banning the public speaking of Urdu, say – you have to live with them. Separatists are citizens too.
What you are entitled to expect is that the law of the land – not some idea, or some “British value”, but the law -applies as absolutely within them as it does everywhere else. And the law, lest we forget, forbids violence, hate-speech, oppression of women and the building of bombs out of fertiliser.
It’s frustrating to think that it’s only at this point that the state can intervene, but there are good reasons why we don’t have “pre-crime” police. You can’t make people love each other, and you shouldn’t try to.”